Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Be candid – Get candid

Over 20 senior company leaders were anxious how the message was going to be delivered and, even more importantly, received. The teams debated for days whether to even bring up such a sensitive topic. The idea of telling the boss “his baby was ugly” was a frightful thought. Now it was time.

The first discussion did not include such a land mine and went well. The key message was in the middle of the presentation when it was recommended that a key initiative should be “paused.” A kind way of saying “stop it.” The presenter continued on but the boss asked her to go back. “By pause, are you suggesting we can it,” he asked? Actually, that was the recommendation, and the group transitioned into a robust discussion about the possible ways of moving toward far more progressive and positive solutions to the business challenge.

This was an amazing example of the power of a leader’s candid openness resulting in improved communication and business solutions. It created buy-in and a comfort level not often experienced. As leaders, we all need to be open to hear our teams and take the time to clarify what they recommend. This closely relates to the “curiosity elevator” we discussed in “What floor are you on?”

Have you experienced a leader open to having their solutions questioned? Are you this type of leader?


A P Raghu said...


Kudos for bringing out one of the most difficult topic for discussion.

I have often been in this situation. I see how the attitude of the boss is. Few of them are open to feedback if it is backed by objective analysis or valid reasons. Few of them dont care, whether their baby is ugly or not, they want subordinates to simply say that is the most beautiful. In the latter case, I dont take risk of being candid since the friction it will create will consume my time and energy.

Instead, I will wait for a forum where my boss's bosses will be present, and tell it diplomatically like in your example. If my boss defends his baby, then I will put across my points vigorously. If he doesn't, then I will close by saying "since the new approach has not had any objections, I take it that I should follow the new approach."

This has worked well for me.

My Vice Chairman is a good example of a leader open to having his solutions questioned. I follow the same norm with my team as well.

However, unfortunately, of the half a dozen organisations I have worked so far, I have not seen a single that has this as an organisational culture. It is rather centric to an individual leader.


Bob Doncom said...

I have found the ability to accept critique such as this far more on the Western side of the Atlantic than the Eastern side, where there is often still much more of a "shoot the messenger" mindset.

It is a shame, as genuine critique well taken moves companies forward faster than pretty much anything else.

David Engle said...

Would just like to comment on Bob's East vs. West suggestion. I have the opposite experience, but am located in Denmark.

This is very culturally dependent. In the Scandinavian cultures it is accepted and even expected that authority be challenged. Sorry to say - not even the best bosses in the world are omnicient or omnipotent.

We need our employees and the input/challenges we can get from them. In this way we add bredth to our decisions ensuring that we have considered more options than if we had been alone.

Good luck to all in being candid!


Anthony Etherton said...

Hi John,

Not enough of them around in business I would suggest. After all, it's a pretty scary thing to do for most 'Alpha's' ...male or female, to open themselves up to questioning. Isn't a leader... supposed to lead??

Yes... from the front and the back, middle and sides, top, bottom and any other place they can find to get the job done. That takes vision, openess, flexibility, a willingness to accept that change is actually evolution... and courage.

If any of them reading this need a little help in that area... they know where to come.

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

Great topic, thanks for posting.

After only several seconds of thought I find myself remebering exactly those leaders in the past that I've worked with that were not open to this sort of communication. I took away a few things from that. First, a real leader is confident enough in their own decisions and goals that they are willing to hear any reasonable dispute. The key here is "reasonable" and by that I mean any argument that is backed by solid thinking and not just some silly reactionary thought.

Second, a good leader encourages independent, creative thought in their subordinates. This reminds me of a saying by General George S. Patton Jr,

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Personally I do my best to follow this example. It certainly isn't easy but I remind myself that if the argument is frustrating it's only because of one of two things. Either it's unreasonable or I'm not confident enough in my own solution.

Alex Kersha

Elaine DeBassige D'Amato said...

My grandfathers were these types of leaders. They believed in an inverse triangle of leadership--that's how one of them drew it for me when I was growing up. I was told that the more power you have, the more you need to serve. This great advice was given to me over thirty years ago, before we saw the ideas of servant leadership come around.

A leader not open to discussion is not a leader but a fearful person pretending to have power.

Geoff Taylor said...

Nice post John ... I guess it is all about reaping what we sow!

Amy Tiemann said...

As you look at what this leader did, it isn't really that remarkable. He was participating as A PART of the team. However, this simple trait is elusive to many leaders. Some tout their positions as the "final say" which translates in employee language as the "only say." The genuineness of the leader also provided a segway in which the employees could get things off their chests and truly provide the feedback that the leader and the company needed. I agree with Alex in that the leader in this example had to have been very confident in his abilities in order to accept the feedback that he did.

At the end of the day, we must admit that leaders are people. They make mistakes. Most leaders should insist on becoming better leaders however and one of the ways to do that is by genuinely asking for input and feedback from their teams.

All the best,

Amy Tiemann

John St. John said...


Wonderful piece. "Openess" truly is a skill that pays huge dividends, but the road to openess can be paved with barriers: Ego, culture, organizational politics, lack of emotional control, etc. I think scenario based training, mentoring, and test driving "Openess" (low risk engagements first), with self-reflection, could help leaders analyze the pros and cons of offering "Openess" to their teams. I have worked with a handful who asked for what's wrong with their idea or made it a standard operating procedure to poke holes in their schemes, in tactful manner. "Openess" is a mark of maturity and I think it is developed over time with proper input and guidance from those who've been down this road (leader/consultant).

Mike said...

John --

I wish you were still with the airplane company -- we seem to have too much group think, and not enough of your forward thinking approaches!

Mike O'Neil

Manirangan seetharam said...

It also involves a high level of emotional maturity and intelligence to accept others view point and rally around a consensus with out affecting our ego and stature. In this world you would always find dominating and aggresive boss more successful than a boss who is democratic in his functioning, hence there are more yes boss than why boss kind of subordinates.

There are always time pressure to achieve a certian goal in corporate structure and questioning becomes an impediment for execution, the mind set is tuned to say yes than clarify or raise a objection.


Sunil Shekhar Gupta said...

i like this. thanks

William Griesmyer said...


Keep up the great work. I really enjoy you comments. They would have been very handy 30 years ago!!


Rob Fox said...

Readers might like to see...


...for tools and tips that combine communications with change techniques to inspire higher engagement.



Wendy Mason said...

I think the best leaders do encourage candid but constructive feed-back from their teams. Unfortunately those less able and less confident may be less welcoming and you can pay the ultimate price for undermining the boss. It's a matter of judgment. But one approach I've adopted is to bring to the real facts gradually to the leader's attention step by step - quite often, then, they themselves will come to the conclusion they got it wrong and change course, without necessarily having to admit the mistake openly.

As a leader, you lose something if you can't take bad news from your team - if you appointed them and they are good - it makes sense to listen to them. I would feel disappointed if a member of a team I had put together didn't feel able to tell me the truth!

Anthony (Tony) Noe said...

This type of leader is rare as you say, but we should all strive to be this open to others ideas while not losing our own thoughts completely. Just recognize we are not the 'only' expert in the company.

Tracy Paige-Malm said...

I am that type of leader. I suggest to my team to openly discuss all things good and bad in meetings so we can work on solutions together.
NYAutoguide.com was getting ready to launch a new product this year but with ecomonic times and the inability to get the process together we delayed the start for a few months. But the team sat down and discussed the pros and cons of waiting for a few months. We also discussed what we did that did not work and how we were going to do to work towards our goal.
The owner of the company has come a long way to listening to us in meetings. She will have opinions in her head as far as projects we are working on, if something she has brought to the table for the sales team to do is not working, we can sit and discuss what is not working. What we can do differently.
Nobody likes to work with a tyrant. Everyone wants to feel like their work matters

John St. John said...


Interesting approach. I'll check out your site.


"Why boss subordinates" Hmmm. I wonder if you could monetize the positive and negative effects of "Less than Open" boss versus the "Open boss".

Is anyone aware of any studies that explore this topic beyond what is offered in contemporary research into Participatory/Transformational leadership approaches that show the effects or gradient of effects (positive or negative) between "Open Bosses" and their "Less than Open" counterparts?

Gervase Bushe said...

If you go to http://www.clearlearning.ca/FTPmanager/Viewcourse.asp?P=18 you can find some of my research on the impact of clear leadership on managers and organizations. Note that I do not advocate bosses being "open" - I do advocate them being "transparent" - an important distinction in my model.

It doesn't happen often. But when it does, a great deal of strategy and tact is recommended when presenting an alternative. said...

It doesn't happen often. But when it does, a great deal of strategy and tact is recommended when presenting an alternative.


Dean Call said...

As one of many in govrnment/military contracting I see example like this all the tie. We can't use the word "retire" so we switch to sunset, or worse yet, planned obsolecene, I've seen briefs that show a project is in danger and should be "paused" translated into everything is good and lets keep trudging on.My fundamental belief is that leadrs want the truth, they need the truth in order to make good decisions. The problem is fear of failure in the lower ranks, or fear of telling the boss "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard" in politically correct terms of course.

Bjorn Nilsen said...

I believe that in order to effectively LEAD a team, one must also be OF the team! There is a nuance to that phrase that is often forgotten by both leader and team members - specifically once that says "while I may lead this team, I am also a member of it, and as such I am as open to the team's ideas as the team is to mine". Leaders must allow themselves to be vulnerable (not weak, but open to criticism/critique/alternatives) to followers at times. By being open, eliminating the "fear factor", and acting on good team suggestions, leaders will find that they have built trust and confidence in their followers. Followers, in kind, will respond with candid discussion when appropriate and swift action when given "the word".

Lastly, Dean makes a good point about leaders needing facts. I have told my own teams "do not tell me fairy tales, tell me the facts -- on which of these do you (my team) want me to base plans and decisions?". The answer is obvious, but a leader has to make the need for, and their receptiveness to, candid communication equally obvious.

Bjorn Nilsen

Scott Woodard said...

What's interesting to me in John's story is that while the leader was candid with his question, his staff not so much. Clearly, they did not expect such candor from The Boss or they wouldn't have fretted so long about how the message would be received and felt compelled to hide it in the middle of the presentation.

So, it appears that candor was not "normal" behavior on the part of The Boss. One wonders if one of the 20 company leaders had been candid enough early enough in the process, that all their anxiety may have been alleviate. Candor works both ways - up and down the chain of command.

~ Scott

Donald Freeman said...

Many times by subcontractors. They're more knowledgeable in their areas of work than I am, so I gladly defer to them if they think they have a better idea. They know who to coordinate with to get a job done, so I like to step back and oversee while they hash things out.

Fred Szibdat said...


When I was at PwC, most of my peers, absolutely hated doing the performance reviews at the end of each assignment. Most of the staff, mentioned that it was by far the best review they had ever gotten. Not to say I always gave easy reviews. But they were robust. Were well worded and highlighted both the good things they did, and the areas to work on.

I recall, giving one particular review, that was not good at all. ANd this employee sought me out for a face to face discussion. Though I at first tried to avoid it. I sat down with her, and we had the best communication, that she and I had ever had. It was frank. It was tactful and professional. But she challenged me on the points I made, and we fairly discussed them.

I've also made sure in large group meetings that every idea is listened to, and discussed. I've challenged superiors on approachs and a few have been open to different ideas.

But... I agree with you, that first you have to gauge the trust and respect level, and not be personal. Keep to the facts, give your perspective and most rational executives, will listen.

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